“I can’t decide whether I’m ambivalent or not.”
Characters work through a lot of such clever or semi-clever repartee in Norman Rush’s latest novel, “Subtle Bodies.” This is a book packed with banter.
“Unhand my behind,” a woman says.
And some pages later: “ ‘You guys are adorable,’ she murmured to her breasts.”
Perhaps layering a banter track into a novel is just being responsive to the desires of millennial Americans. We are a people who like to laugh — and to be seen laughing. This is why we spend so much money on our teeth.
In this novel, Rush’s third, Ned, our idealist hero, wants the fun to go on forever. “On his very tall tombstone he wanted inscribed at the top Fun Had.”
If you’re the reader for whom a little breast-murmuring goes a long way, “Subtle Bodies” and these characters are going to quickly leave you behind.
Rush’s previous novels were “Mortals” and the excellent “Mating,” a very funny book about Americans gamboling and anthropologizing in Botswana. “Mating” was arguably one of the sharpest, brightest American novels of the past quarter-century.
In “Subtle Bodies,” Rush turns his gaze and applies his considerable powers as an observer of sociocultural minutiae to a tiny band of New York University graduates. Thirty years later, the members of this ex-clique are solidly, and for the most part unsatisfactorily, in middle age. When Douglas, their undergraduate ringleader and arbiter in chief, dies in a lawn mower accident, the surviving members are summoned to his luxurious estate on a Catskills mountaintop to mourn and memorialize.
Ned, a fair-trade organizer, flies in from San Francisco, where he is the principal strategist of a march against the upcoming Iraq war. Gentle Ned has a soft spot for anarchists, another for the Israeli Mossad. Go figure. (His wife, Nina, says his biography ought to be called “The Neurotic Personality of Our Time.”)
Ned is pursued across the country by Nina, who is on a schedule to conceive a child, and isn’t about to let the death of her husband’s college friend interfere with her body’s relentless reproductive calendar. She comes packed with self-esteem and a frightening degree of pertness. After she arrives, uxorious Ned knows “everything was going to be impossible, but better,” but to this reader, Nina is too cute for comfort, one of the more irritating female characters to pout across the pages of recent American fiction.
Ned spends most of his time on the mountain trying to sort through his feelings about Douglas — “never Doug” — and trying to come to terms with where he and his friends are, 30 years down the road from NYU. All the pals try to make sense of the death and untangle their own attitudes about Douglas, middle age and one another. Yup, it’s that kind of Big Chill weekend.
The other members of the party gathered at the doleful mansion never quite come into focus. Douglas’s Czech sex-kitten wife and his feral son are undeveloped and seem just bizarre. Elliot the stockbroker seems to have lost a large pot of Douglas’s money and is “a puzzle, with his long, waxy face. He was the tallest and the thinnest, but he had dog eyes.” Joris is managing his addiction to affairs with married women by consorting only with prostitutes. Gruen creates television ads for nonprofits and stays in soft focus, though we are expected to adore him — he does have a terrible cold.
Douglas remains a mystery throughout. Circumstances concerning his finances, politics, death and fatherhood never really get resolved and aren’t particularly interesting. From all evidence, he was born with a tic for over-discernment, a weakness shared by the people who write flavor notes on bags of artisanal coffee. He seems to have spent his college years sniffing at the world’s flavors like a bored sommelier, then pouring most of the bottles down the drain. Picky-picky, the reader wants to scold Douglas and his bunch. And perhaps that is what Rush is really saying about privilege and people who expend almost as much energy coining ironic remarks as they do worrying about which delicacies they are to be served at dinner.
One of Douglas’s rules back at NYU was to learn the names of the working people on campus, the janitors, food servers and security guards who kept college life so pleasant. “He had been kind of ostentatious about it, but over time it had seemed like the right thing to do, and the working rabble, as Douglas had referred to them, seemed to appreciate it. Ned had carried this practice on in a dilute way in his life and Nina just did it by reflex.”
None of the friends on this magic mountain seems to have been troubled by that phrase “working rabble,” which says something about the sense of privilege, and the blind spots, in these characters and in this book.
Behrens’s most recent novel is “The O’Briens.”
By Norman Rush
Knopf. 236 pp. $26.95